Saturday, 16 September 2017

I WENT TO MINSK FOR ABOUT A DAY AND NOW I THINK ALL YOUR THEATRE IS BOURGEOIS YEAH

Five nights a week, behind the door of an anonymous building in suburban Minsk that is supposed to be a garage, some theatre shows happen.

The shows are free, and announced on the afternoon of performance by WhatsApp message, with places – anything from 30 to 55 – allocated on a first-come, first-served basis to those who dial a burner phone manned by Nadia from Belarus Free Theatre, who jots the names down on a paper list.

Belarus Free Theatre are outlawed in their home country, though maybe it’s more complicated than that sounds to us. On an admittedly glancing first visit it would seem like a mistake to imagine Belarus as some sort of Stalinist throwback. Instead it is what it is: a poor Eastern European country with a democratic deficit and a heavy Russian influence.

Belarus Free Theatre were last clamped down on in March, and a couple of years back the KGB – they still have the actual KGB in Belarus – forced them to leave their previous headquarters-cum-performance space. None of this would be likely to happen in the West. But with founders Nikolai Khalezin and Natalia Koliada exiled to London – Nikolai had to miss his father’s funeral because he doesn’t dare risk a return until he has obtained a British passport – and the company something of an international cause célèbre, it doesn’t feel like crushing Belarus Free Theatre is President Lukashenko’s actual number one priority. The company are pretty sure the KGB know they’re here, pretty sure the odd spook has come to see a show, and pretty sure they’ll be made to move on at some point. But not right now.

I have reviewed a couple of Belarus Free Theatre’s London shows and always found them a bit frustrating – spirited but dated agit prop designed to tell comfortable Western audiences about the bad things that are happening elsewhere. In Minsk both the shows and the context feel radically different.

For starters there is a genuine, undeniable, tacky thrill to opening a boring door and stepping into a sweaty, illicit theatre audience. Out here as a foreign observer to do a feature on a new London night Belarus Free Theatre is starting, there is clearly no actual danger to me. But to see theatre outside of a designated, government-sponsored building, staged on the most DIY of lines – a couple of portable lights and a projector operated by a woman on a precariously-balanced laptop – is pretty remarkable.

It reminds me – perhaps banally, but oh the thrill – of the best ATP chalet parties, makes me think how much the iconography of anti-establishmentarianism has been co-opted by music in the punk era and after. But was punk really anything more than one generation exercising its privilege to tell another generation to fuck off? Was rave really much more than hedonism? Were they causes of change or were they symptoms?

I don’t think there is a vast amount of counter-culture in Belarus, but this is definitely it: young people, queer people, disabled people, the inevitable vegans… they’re here because theatre is the thing most palpably pricking the system. Theatre, of all things! Imagine what most Western theatre writers would give to be able to say that. It’d be like after years of playing Dungeons & Dragons suddenly discovering you could actually summon a magic missile.

The first show I see, House No 5, is a darkly humorous series of skits about disability (made with a mix of disabled and able-bodied performers). It is a bit hit-and-miss (I follow along on a translated script). But it is the only real forum in the country for this stuff to get talked about. I think we fret a lot about diversity in the West precisely because we have a monolithic, well-funded, well-intentioned framework that is meant to allow every voice to be heard, and we rage that it doesn’t work as ought. But there is something immensely powerful in saying ‘fuck that, we’re going off grid’. It is easy for me to sit here and fantasise about British theatre makers who have a problems with British theatre might just up sticks and put radically different stuff on in an unlicensed shed somewhere. But it’s a thought.

The second show I see is The Master Had a Talking Sparrow. I suppose you’d call it immersive theatre: the garage is turned into a Belarusian living room in what I’m assuming is the late ‘70s/early ‘80s (Boney M play on the radio). We are gathered for a traditional meal, with heavy plates of smoked meats and boiled vegetables on the table, plus copious amounts of actual moonshine (it is perhaps one complication of Belarus Free Theatre that a free show in which the audience gets a full meal would surely not be possible without the outside funding they receive, though they’re hardly a western construct).

The show – based on a compendium of interviews conducted by journalist Zmitser Bartosik – is basically a reminiscence on civilian life in Belarus during the Second World War conducted over the dinner table. Though passions run high at times, there is barely any dramatic structure: the meal happens, people talk, we’re all a bit drunker by the end, but there’s no big revelation or sudden twist, and the whole thing is baggy enough to allow fairly robust interjection from the audience.

What’s radical is that the equivalent to this conversation – which might have happened word for word in the period it’s set – would be profoundly unlikely to happen today. That’s because the national discourse over the war has been studiously sculpted in present-day Belarus.

The atrocities committed by the Soviets during the first half of the war have been played down to almost nothing, because this is an increasingly awkward narrative. Earlier in the day I am taken to the Kurapaty woods, one the most haunting and horrible places I have ever been, a few acres of woodland just outside Minsk where the trees are intermingled with hundreds of wooden crosses marking the hundred thousand-plus people executed here by the Soviets. It is an official memorial, visited by President Clinton in 1994. But in the Putin era the government prefers to ignore it, and there are periodic attempts to tear down the crosses and desecrate the memorials. It is huge and stunning and significant, but it isn’t even in my guidebook, rather damningly.

There were also atrocities committed – on a smaller scale – by the Belarusian partisans who fought, among others, the Nazis, now venerated as an entirely heroic, patriotic movement.

And of course there were the Nazis themselves, who committed terrible atrocities – and these are the only ones the state really cares to remember.

The Master Had a Talking Sparrow is defined by its reasonableness – it’s a bunch of people chatting about what the war was like, and acknowledging that the partisans, in particular, did bad things too, in some cases because they’d been pushed over the edge by the occupations, in some cases because if you give a man a gun and say he can do what he likes, the first thing he’ll probably do is shoot his annoying neighbours.

In its reasonableness the show is a radical attempt to protect the past from revisionism as these events move out of living memory. It is a time capsule, and it has more genuine *purpose* to it than perhaps any other theatre show I have ever seen, and despite the interactive niceties, it is utterly untainted by the frivolity of plot – it has a mission and nothing gets in the way of it.

I think it affected me so much in part because I’ve been thinking recently about the British difficulty in coming to terms with ‘our’ own past (I obviously have another ‘our’ at least as problematic). One difficulty, maybe, is that rather than suppress the truth about what happened on our own soil, we outsourced most of our atrocities and are now content to view them as distant foreign events (though I believe there was suppression too).

I thought Tanika Gupta’s recent Lions and Tigers at the Globe did a pretty good job of explaining how Indians probably viewed the British in the pre-independence era and why it is that the British Empire was not universally beloved. But ultimately I thought it was a bit grounded in the conventions of being a play, all subplots and climaxes. But it does strike me that in the blah blah Brexit era British theatre maybe has a responsibility to talk about British past in a way that goes beyond a pieces of entertainment with a couple of painful truths tossed in. We know Amritsar happened - why don't we give a shit, really? It should be huge, 9/11 with us as the bad guys. Instead it's just ‘history’. Why do we persist in mythologising Winston Churchill but missing out the bad stuff? Can theatre fulfil the social function of keeping our unwanted past alive? Or do we shrug and hope somebody makes a hit film? (Mike Leigh's imminent Peterloo flick looks important).

Anyway. Context is everything. I was just a foreign journalist, invited out to write what were clearly expected to be positive things about the company. There couldn't really be a British equivalent to Belarus Free Theatre; undoubtedly many British theatres would be viewed as too radical for Minsk in their way. It is probably more important to have the right to free speech and not get it quite right than it is to not have the right but illegally get it correct to an audience of 30 (in a country of nine million). But so much of our theatre feels based on the idea that radical things are possible by sticking within the boundaries of a government-sponsored entertainment industry and perhaps tweaking the audience mix a little. And I wonder if that absolutely has to be the case.

NB this is clearly not the article I went out to write, about Belarus Free Theatre's Kitchen Revolution - that'll follow in October and be essentially London focussed with this as a backdrop. If you are a big money commissioning editor stunned by these words and would like them bashed into something less indulgent, we can talk. We can always talk.

Friday, 14 July 2017

A CONFESSION

I am unclear as to whether or not it's massively unprofessional to talk about this, but I think I'd feel a bit weird never to mention it, even if it's just to leave it written down on a dusty corner of a blog that nobody will read. What I am about to recount has given me a pretty weird last month. There are details I'll leave out, including the name of the publication in question, though basic grasp of internet searches ought to reveal who I'm talking about if you don't know already. But you know. SEO. So. Okay.

I got headhunted to be the theatre (theater?) critic of a major New York publication.

But they hadn't looked into the reality of getting a visa for a foreigner when they got in touch, and the other day they decided it was 'beyond their means' to get me one.

Now, if you have worked out what the publication is, I should say that the process was fairly opaque, and while they were clearly serious I have no insight at all into how they were working it re: other candidates. So I think it's worth saying that even if it had been possible to get me a visa, I may easily have lost out to the person who has been given the job, and this post isn't some THAT WOULD DEFINITELY HAVE BEEN ME IF IT WASN'T FOR THE DAMNED VISA, I WAS FIRST PICK type thing, because I have no idea.

Still, there was a week or two when I was consumed with fretting – as much as anything – about the logistical details of a move to New York. Obviously discussions were held with my other half. What would we do with our flat. Did we fully understand the insane American healthcare system. Could she work.

I suppose it also felt kind of valedictory on some level, that an important stranger had read my stuff and liked it enough to express interest in whisking me over. I'm not crippled by false modesty, but it's not like I sit at my desk fending off approaches from the British press.

I'm saying all this like I'd have blithely left Time Out without hesitation: Time Out is great and in all honesty I hadn't made that decision for sure as I never received a job offer. But it was more money, bigger wordcounts, and moving someplace really cool. It was worth considering.

But I never got the chance and it's a bit of a weird thing to have happened, a sort of glimpse into an alternative future. It is flattering and reassuring and makes me wonder if I should have a bit more of an ego about my own work, a bit more naked ambition. But it's also a bit of a downer, insofar as it raised a certain possibility that I'd not really considered before, but shut the possibility down in a way that suggests that the thing I had only just considered as a possibility was in fact unlikely to ever happen.

Anyway, life goes on, I have a wonderful job in probably the best theatre city in the world. But it's been a strange month and I guess I'd like to give it its own little digital headstone.

CHINA: A POSTSCRIPT


I have been terrible about writing about places that I have travelled to in recent times – I have a series of blogs that I've started and not finished on places from the Shetlands to Sierra Leone – and perhaps I won’t finish this, but I thought it would be nice to give it a shot.

So I went to China on a press trip the other day, and before I was granted my hilariously high powered (two year! Multiple entries!) Chinese business visa, I looked at some of my old blogs from China in 2009, and ended up correcting a few typos and rephrased a few sentences, which is a genuinely weird thing to do, probably. But it would be nice to add a sort of postscript, on returning.

I think my most acute impression left over from my last trip is that I was pretty jaded: I was on my own, for a long time, and I got fairly ill, twice, then had a very frustrating time attempting to leave the country, and maybe I was a bit negative or whatever.

It’s difficult to totally judge the China of 2009 against the China of 2017 because so much has changed – much of it regarding the internet: there are QR codes on everything and huge swathes of the internet are blocked.

More significant, surely, is that eight years ago was a fairly big chunk of my life and I was taking a lot in on that trip and there are simply things about Beijing I’ve forgotten – I guess I feel kind of sad about that in a way. I’d semi-forgotten what the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square were like, and I have pretty sporadic memories of the Wall. I suppose that is the point of keeping all these blogs, maybe..?


Anyway, I was on a press trip and very well looked after and the sense of feeling a bit excluded from China wasn’t there so much: I wonder if staying in hostels in more traditional neighbourhoods gives you a certain idea of China being a less modern country than it really is, or if things have simply advanced prodigously, but there certainly seemed to be a lot more coffee shops and bars around than I remember (because a lack of coffee shops and bars was one of my 'problems' with the place).

Where I hadn't been before was Jinan, where the show we were seeing was being rehearsed. It is certainly a cool and random addendum to my journeys through China. It’s essentially off the Western tourist trail entirely, but it’s a modern city of 2m people that certainly has enough for a good day of tourism. Its springs are very famous (domestically) and manifest themselves in series of beautiful parks (still no walking on the grass). The second one we went to, the Five Dragon Pools, was incredibly beautiful, with a lovely paddling area and massive blue ponds glittering with orange fish. It was lovely, and though it seems faintly insane to spent what was effectively a long weekend in China, it actually all worked surprisingly well: big wodge of travel, one very very packed day in Jinan, one very very packed day in Beijing, and a few extra hours in each on either side. Perhaps I was isolated from the ‘real’ China in a way that I wasn’t before, but then again I doubt many Chinese people’s experience of China is backpacking around it on a miniscule budget whilst vomiting on sleeper trains. It felt foreign and ‘other’, but it also felt safe, polite (very little staring), and maybe it’s the case that I can just afford a 50 yuan beer or whatever now and I couldn’t then, but the sort of sense of not being able to just sit down for a drink or coffee certainly wasn’t there. 

Conversely, it did bring home the scary authoritarian side of China: we got bollocked by a reasonably terrifying guard in Tiananmen Square for trying to walk across the square at a certain point, not marked as forbidden; and the severance from social media is, at the least, very palpable. Some of our money turned out to be fake, which was kind of gutting. But I suppose in an awful way these things seem like part of the local colour when you’re a tourist.

The best thing that happened, happened on our day in Beijing: after returning to the Forbidden City (massive, impressive, quite repetitive and lacking in much in the way of interiors – I can kind of see why I might have forgotten some of the finer details when it was perhaps slightly light on finer details) and before I returned to Tiananmen Square (massive, militarised, beautiful at dusk when the lights flared and the sunset caught the smog just so) we went to the park opposite the Forbidden City, climbing up to its peak, a wooded pagoda. Down in the trees below us, we heard people singing, accompanied by folky instruments – accordions and whatnot. We went down and there were groups of people – mostly old and middle aged – singing and smiling, seemingly random civilians coming down for a singalong with some musicians who had set up down there. Why were they doing it? I have no idea: one of our party photographed a board in Mandarin that may have had an explanation, but I doubt she’ll ever get round to getting a translation.

There’s probably a couple more memory joggers I could toss in if I come back to this in another eight years: I quite enjoyed both my (Air China) flights and somehow managed to triumph over the hated jetlag totally; I stayed in two hotels, both with batshit mental breakfast buffets (chicken sausages! Baked bacon! A ‘live’ egg chef! Some sort of incredibly strong smelling liquor! Just Chinese stuff we'd order form a takeaway, except it's breakfast!); the show I saw, China Goes Pop!, is something I’ll write about in the future, but it was an interesting experience, not least learning about the country’s acrobatics academies, where people join as children and stay with all their lives; a beautiful walk back down a pedestrianised Jinan market street; finding a massive supermarket underneath the baking public square opposite out hotel; drinking by the waterside at the ‘Belgian’ bar in Jinan; walking back from the bar late at night, riverside, with the lights off, and seeing groups of people sitting drinking in total darkness – then crossing a bridge and seeing night fishermen silently casting in total darkness, only given away by their glowing lures; bumping into Evening Standard writer Nick Curtis in the singing park in Beijing; taking his advice and trying to find the city’s mental night-market, only to spend the rest of the evening trawling around for it, totally failing, at least discovering a pretty cool ‘folk restaurant’ called Lost Heaven, then finally getting back to discover the night market had been shut all year; hatching a ridiculous plan to get up at 5am to go to the Great Wall on the day we flew then sensibly deciding this was a stupid idea.

I think even last time I said I’d like to go back to China and see some the many many touristy bits I missed before. But I suppose even if I never go back, I’m definitely over my slightly weird, awkward ‘break-up’ with the country last time, and though China rightly doesn’t give a shit in any way shape or form, it’s fractionally cheered me up about the world, so there’s that eh.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

ANOTHER FUCKING ELECTION

Even the limited number of Tory voters I know seem to agree Theresa May has been a terrible PM; perhaps one of her lesser crimes is forcing – *forcing* – me to write another bloody election blog.

I'm going to vote Labour again, even though there have been moments over the last year where I've assumed I wouldn't. But ultimately my biggest problems with Corbyn have been incompetence and lack of policies, and the Labour election campaign has been competent and policy filled, so there you go.

I think it's important not to forget the reasons why so many people who voted for him in 2015 lost faith; certainly it is patently bollocks to suggest he has been brilliant all along but we were all being manipulated by the media. Still, while a loss seems overwhelmingly likely, I think it would have to be fairly chunky for me not to feel he deserves the chance to see if he can bring his newfound competence to bear post-election. There are things he needs to address, from PMQs performances to purging the vocal anti-Semites amongst his supporters, but for a not terrible loss I'd probably give him the chance to have a crack.

That sounds a bit unromantic doesn't it? Part of it is that I'VE BEEN BURNED JEREMY, a lot of it is that virtually everyone I know has enthusiastically bigged up the manifesto so to do so again seems fairly pointless, whereas with Milliband I really did feel that I needed to warm up the room on some micro level.

There is also, of course, the fact that I can't really bring myself to get too excited this time, not because of Corbyn but because of various naggingly plausible articles suggesting the current polls are dangerously flattering to Labour. It is depressing to think an election campaign as dreadful as that waged by the Conservatives can still ultimately be successful. But it can and probably will. Still I try to be philosophical: Brexit will almost certainly be a total fucking disaster that'll probably bring down whoever is in charge. And maybe this will be whatever turns Labour into what it needs to be in the twenty first century, Things will get worse before they get better. But they will get better, Probbaly. So, um, yay. 

Friday, 20 January 2017

IN THE DEPTHS OF DEAD LOVE

Hello! Sorry to divert you to my neglected blog, this just felt a bit niche for a Time Out blog and a bit long to just tweet out.

The Print Room’s production of In the Depths of Dead Love by Howard Barker – controversial for the reasons stated here – has obviously been quite an emotional experience for a lot of people. Some of them tweeted in response to our review, in which our writer Tim (a freelancer) said he didn’t think the play was racist, and clearly a lot of people has a problem with that statement, whether because they feel it is racist or because they feel Tim was looking for the wrong kind of racism, ie somebody said ‘nobody said the play was racist’, meaning it’s the non-casting of east Asian actors in a play notionally set in ancient China that's the problem, not the content of the play per se.

Anyway, I totally get people’s reasons for having a string reaction but don’t especially feel that I can really reply very meaningfully to people tweeting @TimeOutTheatre in response in the way I tend to do when my own reviews annoy people because I didn’t see the show. But I do hate it when corporate accounts just ignore an issue that people are complaining about, hence I have written this. If you want to try and talk to Tim about it on Twitter please do, but he doesn’t Tweet very much. Or alternatively, post a comment under the review, if that doesn’t feel too awful and corporate a suggestion.

Did I duck what should have been a personal responsibility by not going to see it? I think one of the maddening elements of the controversy around the show is that it’s not a piece of theatre that would have got much attention had there not been protests, because neither The Print Room nor Howard Barker are big deals in 2017. If I had gone out that night (I had to stay home to babysit as it happened) I'd surely have felt pretty good about instead seeing the brilliant The Convert, which was coincidentally having its press night just around the corner at The Gate, a much more significant theatre with a clear, positive commitment to diverse casting (The Convert has an all black cast).

(Whitey McEgo aside: The last thing I should probably do is wade into the actual controversy but whatever: from my own understanding of the play and the issues I’d probably disagree with Tim and say the most culpable party is surely Barker. My understanding of his intent with the play notionally being ‘set’ in ancient China is that it was a deliberate distancing device and that his assumption is that it would have a non-east Asian cast (it was staged on Radio 3 a couple of years ago with another all-white cast). To my mind there is clearly something orientalist about equating ‘Chinese’ with ‘distance’, even i Barker didn't give it a huge amount of thought.

But a major element of the protest has been about the play denying east Asian actors east Asian parts. Which is fair enough but if the playwright’s actual intent/expectation was that his characters living in ancient China with Chinese names wouldn’t be played by east Asian actors, then I am surprised more ire isn’t being directed at him (and it seems very apparent from today's Guardian interview with him that he has not been the victim of malicious casting directors). He is the one who has used the idea of the orient ‘other’ as a device. The Print Room went along with it, and while I think they probably made a mistake putting the play on at all, I’m a bit dubious about the implication underpinning aspects of the protest that the play would have been fine if it had had an east Asian cast – surely this would be at best a subversion of a dodgy play, at worse flattering the playwright. (There is something vaguely black comedy-ish about a protest for the right of actors to be cast in a bad, possibly racist Howard Barker play.)

I wonder if an element of the protest being directed so vehemently at The Print Room – which has admittedly dealt with the entire situation terribly – rather than Barker is more a general vocalisation of annoyance at the failure of British theatre to representatively cast E Asian actors, rather than because it is the most forensic way to protest this particular production. That's fair enough though: if a rubbish Howard Barker play can provide a springboard to a wider industry problem than the casting of one not-very-good fringe play, then that’s probably a step up on most rubbish Howard Barker plays.)